Panel discussions

The Issue of Water: Technology, Partnership & Approach

Read Time:12 Minute
This panel discussion is a continuation of last month’s cover story, “How to Make India Water Resilient?” The panelists were: Ms. Mridula Ramesh, CEO of Sundaram Climate Institute; Mr. Ravichandran Purushothaman, President-India Region, Danfoss Industries; Mr. J Srinivasan, Distinguished Scientist from IISC Bangalore; and Mr. Muthiah Murugappan, CEO of EID Parry (India) Ltd. Mr. N K Ranganath, Former Managing Director of Grundfos Pumps India Pvt Ltd., moderated the session.

Mr N K Ranganath: There are about 600 to 700 million people in India who face a water risk or have very poor access to water. If we don’t take action now, by 2030, 40% of India will have zero access to water. The demand currently is anywhere between 650 to 675 billion cubic meters. It’s expected to double to about 1500 billion cubic meters by 2030. India is moving up the economic scale; we are industrializing and urbanizing at a phenomenal rate. We have an average rainfall of 1200 mm per year. But there is huge variation. In some areas, it’s less than three millimeters per year while in some, it is 11,000 mm per year.

There has to be a holistic approach to water. Water for agriculture, water for industry, water for human consumption and water for animal consumption is all one water. We must see how we can effectively share water. The Jal Shakti ministry is an effort in the right direction. But sadly, water is state subject and we have six or seven ministries handling water. We have almost 4000 trillion cubic meters of rainfall precipitation, of which about 2000 is usable. The rest goes here and there. The second issue is storing this for a rainy day or should we say, non-rainy day? The potable water is reducing.

We need to go local and give equitable access of water to all the stakeholders in each area. We know that one-third of India is drought prone and one-tenth of India is flood prone. Two thirds of India has contaminated water. These are all facts. All that we can do is to start reversing this contamination. 80% of India’s water is used for agriculture, 10% for industry and 10% for human and animal consumption. We are profligate in the use of water in agriculture. As compared to Vietnam and Indonesia, we produce half the quantity of rice for double the quantity of water per hectare. 10% savings in agricultural water is 8% savings in India’s water consumption. It is almost 80% of human consumption for India.

The central government has taken tremendous efforts and invested heavily for water management. They have also come up with a composite water management index which is a brilliant way of stating how well each state is doing. Gujarat and Kerala are right at the top and Tamil Nadu is about six or seven. It’s not about the quantum of water but how well they manage water. In Chennai, 4000 cubic meters of raw sewage is let into the Cooum. They don’t have the money to put up the treatment plants. We have to find a way of doing it under the PPP method, like what is happening in the Namami Ganga scheme, etc.

We consume more groundwater than China, US and Israel put together. We also have borewells in each house. We need them because the government is not giving us enough water. Sewage waste is perhaps the greatest source of water. Our cities are now going for recycling and Tamilnadu is doing quite a bit of work. I went and saw some of these. They’re doing tertiary treatment and sending water down to the industry.

Let me put some questions to our panel. Mr Muthiah, you have a food-based industry. You make alcohol out of it. In your community and the industry, what are the issues that you’re facing? Is there a buy in from the community to work with you?

Mr. Muthiah: Seasonality impacts the business and the business model. In the hotter months, water is not available. Rainfall varies across years. We wanted to stem that. We actually didn’t start with the sugarcane business. We started with the algae business, which is the other realm of foods. We worked on the watershed around the areas of Sivaganga. The local community did get involved but we had to engage them, educate them before getting them involved.

We had to bring in the funding from our own CSR initiatives because it’s a very arid region and the communities were not really prosperous to come out and support such an initiative. This work gave confidence to us and to a lot of members of the sugarcane sourcing team here. We’ve expanded this activity into the sugar cane belt, where the issues are even graver.

First, there was the issue of seasonality around running the factories with a sugarcane belt. Sugarcane is a water guzzler. Of course, it’s lucrative for them. We have age old irrigation practices where sugarcane farmers flood the fields and they believe it’s the best way to irrigate the crop, where in reality, they deplete the water table. To address this, we’ve expanded into the sugarcane areas as well. In our sugar cane business, we touch close to 200,000 farmers. There’s captive CSR funding available, but then we had to go out and start broad basing this funding. We’ve got good support from the local farming community.

We currently manage about a billion and a half liters of water and the aspiration is to touch 10 billion in three years. We serve marquee FMCG customers like Nestle, GSK and Mondelez. All of them want to participate in these initiatives.

Mr. Ranganath: I’m from a farming background and I know it’s very difficult to change farmers. You have to weave in their traditional knowledge with the new digitalization efforts that have happened. How did you gain acceptance?

Mr. Muthiah: Very true. We follow a progressive farmer concept. Progressive farmers are those farmers who work to stem the ‘flooding of fields’ irrigation concept. We work with agri-tech companies who have IoT based smart irrigation solutions. We use these farmers as advocates, to speak to the larger farming community.

Ms. Mridula: Demand management is lacking in India. There are startups who are taking it on. We have signed up with one of them. They work on precision irrigation using IoT. But startups working in isolation will never solve the problem. Partnership is the name of the game. As the Waterman of India, Dr Rajendra Singh, says, indigenous wisdom is the key to solving India’s problem. The Community Connect has disappeared in cities. We need people to come up with innovative ways to solve it. One of the startups I know, puts a robot down the borewell to see how it’s working and how to rejuvenate dead borewells.

Mr. Ranganath: Are these startups scalable?

Ms. Mridula: 100%. Five years ago, electric mobility was a joke. Today, the angel investors want to invest in EVs. That is what will happen to water also.

Prof Srinivasan: Often people blame climate change for all our problems. Every Indian city must recognize that they cannot afford to be careless about water conservation. Take Bangalore, for example. It is a very poor example of a city built on a hilltop, nowhere near a river and is growing in size. It takes water from Cauveri, which is 100 kilometres away. Now there are plans to take water from Sharavathi River, if you can believe it.

We need to look at conservation and managing the water demand. There is no place in India where water is in plenty. Delhi has the highest per capita water consumption. To me, the first lesson is that urban areas should be leaders in water conservation and controlling water use, because they are the ones using water much more than the rural areas. Of course, agriculture is a major issue. But I don’t see any easy solution in agriculture. As many have pointed out, farming community not going to change that easily. They say, ‘The urban community wastes water and why blame us?’

Mr. Ravichandran: I represent Danfoss, a company which is into energy efficiency and electrification. We do a lot of work both at the factory and political level. In one of the delegations I was in, one of the MPs asked me, “What business are you in?” I said, “I’m in energy efficiency” “Oh, you’re making LED bulbs,” he retorted. It struck me that LED bulbs have made a big impact. How do we take the water tanks to the politicians as the LED bulbs? This is a very important message. We must sell the story of LEDs differently for water. To me, fixing water is fixing tanks.

I come from an agriculture family. Urbanization has driven us away from farming. We have a 50 acre campus in Chennai. When we signed the MOU with the government, they agreed they will give X kilo liters of water per day. When we started operating in 2013, we were 1300 people in the campus. We were spending 165 kilo liters of water per day. We thought that this was too much of water and water is on our balance sheet. We couldn’t find a good solution.

Later, in 2017 or 18, we ran into a startup with young boys and they measured where we were spending our water. We focussed on three mantras: reduce, reuse, and renew. I have lived in Germany for many years, along the Rhine River. Germany treats its water six times before it lets it in the river. Reuse of water is nothing but recycling water. For regeneration, we need to work around the communities. We picked up the villages around Vembakkam, which is a small village of 60,000 people. They never knew they had a lake. We found it out through the Irula community that was living around the periphery of the lake.

We went into the mission mode on cleaning up the lake through the Collector. We had to find houses for the Irula community. We had to find the lake and demarcate it. We engaged with an NGO from Hyderabad, and today we have cleaned the lake. It is about one acre in size and in the last five years, it has brought livelihood for 50,000 people. We need to bring social transformation on ground. I agree with Dr. Rajendra Singh’s message that neither the government nor the industry can fix it. Community has to be caught on board. Community engagement is very important. We need to educate and partner with the community. That’s the second message. The last one is, we all need to reduce our own consumption. We need to be ambassadors of water and energy, otherwise we will be leaving a very, very poor planet for our next generation.

Ms. Mridula: During the survey done by us in Madurai on water, we asked people, “Why are you not acting?” They said, the government should do it which is a shorthand for saying, ‘I don’t want to act.’ Once they realize the power is in their hands, people begin to act. Second, we have become disconnected from our past ancestral wisdom. We have forgotten about it, especially in our cities. So education of what is to be done is very important.

Mr. Ravichandran: Five years ago, we were consuming 165 kilo litres of water in the campus every day. Then we got the team that put the entire IoT solution and we started measuring. We just didn’t stop with that. We started educating our entire community of 1300 people in our company that we are consuming so much amount of water. They came up with many ideas. For instance, one person pointed out that when we served Sambar Rice (Sadam) in the canteen, water consumption was more. We tweaked that and made it as Bisibelabath and water consumption came down. Even small things can bring in a lot of change. If we reduce the water pressure in our houses, a lot of water can be saved. School children must know about conservation practices. So the short term solution is to reduce, reuse and renew. In the medium term, we must look at all our tanks. In the long term, we must look at the feasibility of connecting canals and rivers.

Prof Srinivasan: It is good to talk about water conservation in text books but in India theory and practice are different. We have not merged the two. Every school must measure the amount of water they consume and document it. Then the awareness will increase.

Mr. Ranganath: One good example is a competition organised by Indian Green Building Council for schools on greening. Quite a few students have focused on water and they’re being funded to do the job. They actually execute it.

Mr. Ravichandran: We have two different Indias now—the urban India and the real Bharat. Migration and urbanization have divided India. The urban part is 50% and the rural part is 50%. We need two different approaches to solve the water problem. The urban centers require deployment of technology. Not many of us know that Koyambedu in Chennai has a sewage treatment plant and it’s an energy positive plant, which means it does not consume energy. It generates and uses its own energy.

Technologies are available on how to solve urban problems. Of course, they are all coming from outside of India. We must innovate with startups and do it in an Indian way, at an Indian cost level. The second thing is to look at the real Bharat which is about $1.2 trillion economy. If we can put water back into the Bharat, I’m sure there will be a lot more opportunities for the Bharat to grow.

Mr. Ranganath: We must get all the stakeholders to work together. We must change focus from merely doing activities to creating the required impact in a sustainable manner. For example, I was working on a program in which we revived a few lakes and we thought we had done a great job. Everybody was very happy. One year later, they were back to where they were earlier because what they were like nobody’s lakes. The locals did not take them. So we changed our business model and sat with them for two or three years to get their commitment. We also had to look at the larger community around, who had more money, and we got them involved. We have little pockets of excellence in India. We need to tie them together.